visitors

Evening chapel at camp. Log building with concrete floor. Screeching folding chairs and battered chorus books. Sunburned families fill the room with scuffling, singing, and the aroma of mosquito spray. Hand-clapping songs engage little ones. Older ones guess at solutions to picture puzzles on the wall and are rewarded with a rain of Hershey’s kisses.

In the middle of it all, my 3 year old goes heavy on my lap and dozes off. To avoid the noisy rush of children out the door at the end of chapel, I whisper to my husband that I’m going to take her out and lay her down in the trailer now. He nods. I shift her up onto my shoulder and carry her outside to our travel trailer that is parked across the gravel lot about 100 feet away.

In the trailer I lay her on the bed and peel her shoes off, wondering if I should wake her to brush her teeth. Then there’s a knock at the door. It is our youth leader’s wife, a tall woman with a typically calm and understated air. At this moment she looks uncharacteristically wide-eyed.

“There’s a bear in the camp. You might want to do something with your dog– sometimes dogs draw bears.”

I don’t remember what I said to her, but I do remember looking at our dog, who was chained to a tree outside the trailer. She was sniffing the air tensely and straining in the direction of the center of camp.

“Come in the trailer!” I invited the youth leader’s wife quickly, feeling anxious to realize that she was outside because of me.

“No, I’ll be OK up on the balcony of the A-frame next door.” Apparently there were a couple other people there with her at that cabin. She told me that someone had gone to keep everyone else in the chapel, which relieved me. Then she left.

I looked at the dog and considered sticking her in the kennel in the van 20 feet away. But I hadn’t got a visual on the bear yet. I suspected that the van was locked, and that 20 feet of distance looked very far. I unchained the dog and hurriedly dragged her toward the trailer with me. She put up a brief struggle, anxious –I was usually the one to chase her OUT of the trailer. I could feel the tension in her body, but once she realized I was serious about letting her into the trailer, she hopped in and paced around restlessly.

I shut the door tight and opened a shade. And instantly spotted the bear.

There. Maybe 60 feet away, rambling and sniffing around the outside of the dining hall. As I watched, it loped past the church where the rest of my family sat and went across the play area, the very place where my children had been playing an hour before. It sniffed near the jungle gym and the swings and turned its head towards the girls cabins, before turning the other directon and walking the perimeter of the campground. The boys’ cabins. The boys bathroom. The A-frame cabin where my brother and his wife would soon sleep. The cabin where my sister and her kids had napped that afternoon.

Up on the balcony of the A-frame nearest to me stood a couple of my cousins and their kids, watching the bear work its way across the other side of the camp. Down below the balcony a dad had his camcorder out, documenting the progress of the bear. He was only two feet from a door, and the bear was by now hundreds of feet away, but he still seemed exposed to me.

The bear sniffed its way past door after door. When it reached the end of the row it looped back and sniffed some more, finally heading up the hill towards one of the furthest buildings in camp, the boy’s bathroom. Past that point I lost sight of him. But still I stood watchful at the window, conscious of the breathing of my 3 year old, wondering if a bear could tear through the aluminum of a travel trailer wall, and hoping that my family would stay in the chapel where the walls were log and they were safe.

There was a dad standing guard outside the door of the chapel by now. And five minutes or so after the last sighting of the bear everyone trailed out of church, perhaps a little more hushed than normal, but eager to spread out and take over the camp again. People quickly mobbed the dad who’d done the camcordering, huddlng close to peer at the tiny screen. Everyone wanted to see the bear for themselves.

I wished I hadn’t.

Every year at camp they warn us to be safe. Don’t leave food out. Shut the trash cans. Never go to the bathroom alone in the night. There are bears up here, after all. Wolves too, they say.

But hearing the words is different than seeing the animal for yourself. Different than seeing him prowling the place where your child played an hour before, maybe even smelling your own child’s scent.

I herded my younger ones into the lodge, placating them with cocoa and cookies and promises of games with friends. I gave my older ones (camp counselors that they were) a barrage of cautions. Watch younger ones strictly. Go to the bathroom in groups of 3 or more at night. Use flashlights. Hurry from building to building while it is dark. No lollygagging.

A night or two later when someone took off with a mob of kids and headed up the mountain — at dusk– in the very same direction that I’d last seen the bear — I called my kids back sharply, and didn’t let them join the hike. Staying around the campfire was no guarantee of safety, I knew. But I could not shake the image of that lumbering sniffing hulk, patrolling the boundaries of our camp.

His camp.

He’d doubtless been there before we arrived. He would be there after we left.

He belonged.

We were the visitors.

{ 20 Comments }

  1. Wow. I bet that WAS frightening. Glad you are all safe and sound and back home now, and I bet you are too!

  2. Glad your all well, and he just looked around, here it is not uncommon for bears to be roaming the streets and yards, we always keep a watchful eye and I never thought I would be teaching my children all about bear safety at our home.

  3. We went camping a little over a week ago and a bear came through one of the campgrounds. We were sleeping in a tent. Unfortunately, in our neck of the woods there have been several attacks where children have been killed in the last several years. We made sure we kept our food locked up in our truck and didn’t leave garbage in our camp either. I’m glad the bear in your camp just walked around and looked at things and then left.

  4. Oh my gosh, how scary.

  5. When I lived in Alaska, we used to camp out all the time and even though I only encountered a bear once in 20 years, it was enough to leave an impression on me that would last for the rest of my life.

    So thankful no one was hurt…and I have to say I’d have been exactly like you – there’s no way I’d have let my kids out after dusk.

  6. You told that story powerfully, Mary. I could feel the intensity of knowing that something mighty, made by God’s perfect hand, could do damage in the blink of an eye.

    I’m so glad that he didn’t blink.

  7. We have major bears at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin. We have strict rules about when the kids can be outside, and where they must stay. One violation is automatic banishment to the deck. You do not mess around when it comes to bears.

    You did a great job! I wouldn’t have let my kids go on the hike either. Especially when you have seen the bear recently.

  8. What a scary experience, told so beautifully! You are an amazing writer and I’m so glad you have blog to share that gift with the rest of us. Now, when do your books come out? I want to read more!

    Jill

  9. kimberly says:

    Mary:
    You are an amazing writer. I loved the way you described your pastor’s wife. I can’t imagine the fear with your children being so close. I could FEEL your story and know God has so gifted you with your writings. Thank you for sharing.
    Kimberly

  10. Oy- This one got my heart beating! So glad that all of you remained safe.

  11. I have vivid memories of bears going through our camps when we would camp at Yosimite when I was young. They had no interest in us humans, just what we had locked up tight in our food lockers. I have great respect for bears!

  12. this gave me the shivers! i’m glad everyone was okay.

  13. so scary. so well described.

  14. Wow. Just wow. I’m thinking you set the land speed record running to get your dog inside. And I can’t even begin to imagine keeping track of so many kids in that situation!

  15. Great story. Important for people to remember, that we are the visitors here.

  16. Great writing, I felt like I was right there. Yikes, I can’t believe someone would take kids on a hike at dusk when it’s known bear territory!!! I would have been terrified, even in a travel trailer. We live in the Rocky Mountains, in an area known for frequent bear sightings. We’ve been here a year and so far only my husband has seen one (it was 10 feet away from him, a juvenile bear who was more curious then anything – my husband in a moment of *stupidity* actually got out of his truck and walked towards it to take a picture!) but it frightens me a lot. During the day I’m not so concerned as there is a lot of construction and logging truck traffic, but as soon as the sun starts to go down… I head inside and make sure the doors are all locked! I make sure I have my eyes on my toddler the entire time we are outside together, at ALL times.

  17. I grew up in bear country. This is probably going to be the longest comment EVER and I’m sorry it’s going to be dull, but here is what you need to know:

    1. Bears are most dangerous when you fear them. If you act afraid, if you do not breathe regularly, if you move suddenly and if you let an adrenaline rush overwhelm you, then you become rather erratic. Unpredictable behavior on your end is an invitation to aggression on their end. Take deep breaths, make calculated movements and act confident. Bears will take that to mean that you are co-existing and not a threat.
    2. In a camp environment, most bears are merely curious. People bring new smells and new sounds and bears want to check it out. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize that people are the same way. When there is a new element in our old environment, we are inquisitive.
    3. Food. Food. FOOD. Bears are all about food. Although they wander into populated areas out of curiosity, most of that curiosity arguably revolves around food. If you are in an isolated camp situation, avoid smells: no chapstick, no lotion, no nighttime showers with smelling shampoos and soaps. Do not ever offer food to a bear as a peace offering; they do not discriminate between a slice of bacon and your hand. Keep (and prepare!) your food (and your pet’s food) away from camp. Secure your food and your garbage in bear boxes or canisters if you can and avoid smoking meat. I mention your garbage because bears will eat an entire bag of garbage to get to a little leftover breakfast burrito, and that can end up harming them. If they are sick, they are more aggressive, and if they get a taste for human food then they are more likely to aggressively pursue it in the future, so it is in your best interest (and the best interest of people around you) to not allow a bear to ever get your food or your trash. Do not bury your trash – they’ll smell it out and eat it. Always wash your dishes immediately and do so away from camp – the water you use will retain the food particles and when a bear comes by to gobble that up you do not want to be present.
    4. I know I already mentioned the need to remain calm, but I want to emphasize this. Bears want to leave you alone and they want to be left alone so avoid interaction and if you have no choice, STAY CALM. If it stands up or sits back, it is trying to get a better smell or view of you. I don’t care how movies portray bears, do not feel threatened by this, as it would not show you its underside if you were a threat. Do not run or tell your children to run – bears are faster. Do not climb a tree – bears will follow.
    5. The best method of physical self-protection depends on the type of bear you have encountered. I was raised around black bears and am therefore more familiar with them. If you encounter a black bear, feel free to take a good sized stone and defend yourself by throwing it at the bear’s bum. Scream out loud, wave your arms, talk to the bear so that it knows that you are human. Do not back down – a black bear who approaches you outside of a bluff charge is sick or injured and backing down will not deter them – defend yourself. Black bears are passive by nature and will leave you alone most of the time. If they charge, do not retreat because they will view that movement as a threat. Simply standing still and acting confident and taking deep breaths will take care of the problem. I have never seen a black bear charge and make contact with a person. They’re big fans of bluffing. I am not very familiar with brown bears (aka grizzlies) but I am told that you should avoid eye contact (not really an issue with black bears) and that you should play dead by curling into the fetal position.
    6. Bear spray is another self-protection option. Be careful, though. One time, some kids I knew accidentally sprayed some of that stuff in their garage. They had to keep the garage door open to air it out and it still took a week before anyone could enter without getting swollen eyes and tearing up. That stuff can cause some very serious (usually temporary, kind of like very strong pepper spray) harm to a person if it is used incorrectly but it is also exceedingly powerful and will deter any bear. Of course, you have to keep in mind that if you use it on a bear and you blind them then you may have increased your risk because you may have made the bear angry and afraid.
    7. If you are with children, put yourself in front of them. Bears recognize the desire to protect your young and they will give you a very wide berth.
    8. In the future, avoid using a camcorder to record a bear. Also avoid taking pictures unless you can do so from a good distance with a zoom lens. The sounds and lights produced by technology have a tendency to freak bears out. You do not want an upset bear on your hands.
    9. Trails are easier to travel on and, naturally, bears like trails too. Just make plenty of noise when you’re on trails and do not travel alone and you should be fine. Bears don’t mind giving up the trail for you, but they do mind being surprised to find you there.
    10. Next time, if you can, don’t bring a dog. Dogs and bears are bad news. I know this sounds horrible but do not ever defend your dog. If your dog gets into a tussle with a bear, it will lose. If you get in there to defend your dog then you will lose too. If you attack a bear, you will not win. If your dog gets involved with a bear? Use the time you have while the bear is distracted to get your children to a safe area away from food and other smells. And then, well, it’s time to get a new dog.
    11. Do not ever think that your family is safe from a bear because they are in a building. They are not. Bears can break into cars and trailers, can tear into tents, can break windows and tear off doors. A sick bear or a hungry bear that is particularly desperate will be particularly destructive if the need arises. The reason that your family was safe was because they were in a group that was making a lot of noise and a bear will not get involved in a group like that. You, being silent and afraid and having a dog with you in a trailer, were in much more danger than your family, but if that bear wanted to enter a building it could have. Underestimating a bear is almost as bad as being afraid of it.

    That’s really all I can think of. I’m sorry that this is such a long comment, but I have known more than one person who has been seriously injured by a bear simply because they were not aware of how to behave around a bear. Now you know, so next time, do not be afraid. You’ll be fine. The bear doesn’t want to hurt you, it just wants to know what’s going on =)

  18. I grew up in bear country. This is probably going to be the longest comment EVER and I am sorry that it is so dull, but here is what you need to know:

    1. Bears are most dangerous when you fear them. If you act afraid, if you do not breathe regularly, if you move suddenly and if you let an adrenaline rush overwhelm you, then you become rather erratic. Unpredictable behavior on your end is an invitation to aggression on their end. Take deep breaths, make calculated movements and act confident. Bears will take that to mean that you are co-existing and not a threat.
    2. In a camp environment, most bears are merely curious. People bring new smells and new sounds and bears want to check it out. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize that people are the same way. When there is a new element in our old environment, we are inquisitive.
    3. Food. Food. FOOD. Bears are all about food. Although they wander into populated areas out of curiosity, most of that curiosity arguably revolves around food. If you are in an isolated camp situation, avoid smells: no chapstick, no lotion, no nighttime showers with smelling shampoos and soaps. Do not ever offer food to a bear as a peace offering; they do not discriminate between a slice of bacon and your hand. Keep (and prepare!) your food (and your pet’s food) away from camp. Secure your food and your garbage in bear boxes or canisters if you can and avoid smoking meat. I mention your garbage because bears will eat an entire bag of garbage to get to a little leftover breakfast burrito, and that can end up harming them. If they are sick, they are more aggressive, and if they get a taste for human food then they are more likely to aggressively pursue it in the future, so it is in your best interest (and the best interest of people around you) to not allow a bear to ever get your food or your trash. Do not bury your trash – they’ll smell it out and eat it. Always wash your dishes immediately and do so away from camp – the water you use will retain the food particles and when a bear comes by to gobble that up you do not want to be present.
    4. I know I already mentioned the need to remain calm, but I want to emphasize this. Bears want to leave you alone and they want to be left alone so avoid interaction and if you have no choice, STAY CALM. If it stands up or sits back, it is trying to get a better smell or view of you. I don’t care how movies portray bears, do not feel threatened by this, as it would not show you its underside if you were a threat. Do not run or tell your children to run – bears are faster. Do not climb a tree – bears will follow.
    5. The best method of physical self-protection depends on the type of bear you have encountered. I was raised around black bears and am therefore more familiar with them. If you encounter a black bear, feel free to take a good sized stone and defend yourself by throwing it at the bear’s bum. Scream out loud, wave your arms, talk to the bear so that it knows that you are human. Do not back down – a black bear who approaches you outside of a bluff charge is sick or injured and backing down will not deter them – defend yourself. Black bears are passive by nature and will leave you alone most of the time. If they charge, do not retreat because they will view that movement as a threat. Simply standing still and acting confident and taking deep breaths will take care of the problem. I have never seen a black bear charge and make contact with a person. They’re big fans of bluffing. I am not very familiar with brown bears (aka grizzlies) but I am told that you should avoid eye contact (not really an issue with black bears) and that you should play dead by curling into the fetal position.
    6. Bear spray is another self-protection option. Be careful, though. One time, some kids I knew accidentally sprayed some of that stuff in their garage. They had to keep the garage door open to air it out and it still took a week before anyone could enter without getting swollen eyes and tearing up. That stuff can cause some very serious (usually temporary, kind of like very strong pepper spray) harm to a person if it is used incorrectly but it is also exceedingly powerful and will deter any bear. Of course, you have to keep in mind that if you use it on a bear and you blind them then you may have increased your risk because you may have made the bear angry and afraid.
    7. If you are with children, put yourself in front of them. Bears recognize the desire to protect your young and they will give you a very wide berth.
    8. In the future, avoid using a camcorder to record a bear. Also avoid taking pictures unless you can do so from a good distance with a zoom lens. The sounds and lights produced by technology have a tendency to freak bears out. You do not want an upset bear on your hands.
    9. Trails are easier to travel on and, naturally, bears like trails too. Just make plenty of noise when you’re on trails and do not travel alone and you should be fine. Bears don’t mind giving up the trail for you, but they do mind being surprised to find you there.
    10. Next time, if you can, don’t bring a dog. Dogs and bears are bad news. I know this sounds horrible but do not ever defend your dog. If your dog gets into a tussle with a bear, it will lose. If you get in there to defend your dog then you will lose too. If you attack a bear, you will not win. If your dog gets involved with a bear? Use the time you have while the bear is distracted to get your children to a safe area away from food and other smells. And then, well, it’s time to get a new dog.
    11. Do not ever think that your family is safe from a bear because they are in a building. They are not. Bears can break into cars and trailers, can tear into tents, can break windows and tear off doors. A sick bear or a hungry bear that is particularly desperate will be particularly destructive if the need arises. The reason that your family was safe was because they were in a group that was making a lot of noise and a bear will not get involved in a group like that. You, being silent and afraid and having a dog with you in a trailer, were in much more danger than your family, but if that bear wanted to enter a building it could have. Underestimating a bear is almost as bad as being afraid of it.

    That’s really all I can think of. I’m sorry that this is such a long comment, but I have known more than one person who has been seriously injured by a bear simply because they were not aware of how to behave around a bear. Now you know, so next time, do not be afraid. You’ll be fine. The bear doesn’t want to hurt you, it just wants to know what’s going on =)

  19. karen M says:

    Wow, I’m terified of bears, I won’t even consider hiking the mountains aorund here, especially in the spring when the bears are hungry, too scarey, I’m so glad everybody was ok and inside buildings, the Lord was watching over you all!

  20. Goodness – glad everyone ok. No bears in Ireland – maybe St Patrick chased them out with the snakes 🙂